His Heart & Sole
Singaporean shoe entrepreneur Charles Wong shares how ICE has made his shoes hot buys
Issue: Aug 2009
Charles Wong shares how he encourages Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship among his staff with CapitaLand employees
Charles Wong, 35, arrives at Sentosa wearing a pair of sneakers made by Pedro - a footwear and accessories brand under the Charles & Keith group. The young entrepreneur is at the CapitaLand Institute of Management and Business (CLIMB) for an ICE tea session with CapitaLand employees.
Jetlagged from a recent trip, the managing director remains humorous and engaging. He shares enthusiastically about how he has introduced Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship (ICE) into his business.
Under Innovation: "We studied the business model of the car industry and further improvised it to suit our business, improving the productivity level of our business."
Creativity: His company introduces 20 new items very week. "If you are a regular customer of our stores, you will have 80 new designs to choose from each month!"
Entrepreneurship: He took huge risks in growing his company. From the first Charles & Keith shop at Amara with a rental of $4000 monthly, he took the leap to rent a unit at $25,000 per month at Causeway Point. "My uncle told me to think big, be adventurous and dare to take risks."
"My uncle told me to think big, be adventurous and dare to take risks."
Charles Wong, Entrepreneur
Sleek chic Pedro store in Kuala Lumpur - the Pedro brand is now in six countries.
At his mother's shoe outlet in Ang Mo Kio, Wong was the one who risked taking on more inventory. His daring decision grew annual revenue from $40,000 to $100,000.
Charles & Keith was first started in 1996 by Charles Wong and his younger brother Keith. Today, the business has grown tremendously; they have 177 stores, including 17 Pedro stores, in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Egypt, India, Bahrain and Cyprus, amongst others.
Each year, Charles & Keith introduces 750 new shoe designs and 300 new bags and accessories, customising their designs to meet the needs of their customers for different markets.
Ear on the ground
Charles Wong's derring-do has won him accolades including the Singapore Youth Award and Entrepreneur of the Year
Wong's business decisions are very much influenced by customer feedback. He says, "We were told that in Muslim countries, the majority of the women are dressed in black from head to toe, hence they prefer to buy matching items such as shoes with bags or shoes with accessories (sunglasses, belts)." The accessories collection now accounts for 30% of the business.
To discover new ideas, Charles & Keith staff gather for weekly "huddles" to research and study the successes of companies such as Singapore Airlines, Google, GE, Apple and Zara. Wong is inspired by Steve Jobs, in particular because Apple launches such great products: "Apple has a relatively small number of products but they sell so well!"
Wong says he loves new ideas and innovations. He recounts an exciting experience he had at a restaurant in Europe which had "electronic tablecloths". Once the diner selected his food from a menu on the table, a picture of the dish would instantly "appear" on the table. The waiter would thus always identify the right diner with the correct dish.
"Instant gratification!" he enthuses. "Imagine if we had that technology in a footwear store. The customer would be able to 'see' her request instantly on a screen and the salesperson can easily retrieve her items and hand over to her in the shortest possible time. "
Room to play
Literally and figuratively, Wong plays at work. "I love problems. It's how you play with them that brings success."
Wong's 390 employees are very well aware of the importance of play in their schedule. There are table tennis and fusball tables in the staff lounge for employees to play during lunch break or after work. They have monthly birthday celebrations and often organise parties to relax after working hours.
"Making the workplace a warm, receptive environment ensures that the staff is productive. They share, discuss and implement any feasible ideas. Building up relationships with colleagues encourages understanding and cooperation between departments," says Wong, who sees himself as a colleague, not a boss.
How does he reward creativity and innovation? "Monetary rewards are not always effective. Now employees want to feel valued. But, that said, we pay market wages for average work and above market average bonuses for good work."
Charles & Keith has brought fast fashion to far flung places such as Cyprus
His vision for Charles & Keith is ambitious.
He aims to open 500 stores globally by 2012. He wants to have a centrally controlled vertical distribution system in strategic locations and a powerful IT infrastructure. He plans to build a training school for the staff so he appreciates the opportunity to visit CLIMB.
Judging from the lively question-and-answer session, Wong's talk was well received.
"It was an opportunity for him to 'download' his experience. He showed the importance of courage. Many of the things he taught us are tacit and it was good to have them articulated," says Andrew Soh, senior manager, knowledge management, CapitaLand Limited, who is a self-confessed "experimentalist in life".
Zen Lee, marketing communications manager of CapitaLand Retail for Funan DigitaLife Mall says, "Despite his youth, Charles comes across as a dynamic individual who is not afraid of trial and error and he's got the drive to risk trying out new ideas. His bottom up business management approach makes room for ideas proposed by his employees to be carried out."
She adds, "While this of course comes with a required bandwidth for mistakes due to the trial and error process, it also allows a lot of room for learning and creativity from the junior staff."
ICE Tea A networking event for CapitaLand staff to learn directly from successful and inspiring business leaders on how they use Innovation, Creativity & Entrepreneurship (ICE) to build and grow their businesses.